In this column I’ll continue our discussion of strategies related to Reduce, the fourth line of defense against stress. Reduce strategies help you find your optimal level of stimulating activities and demands, that point where you are challenged, not stressed by the things you choose to do with your life.
Miscommunication usually causes misunderstanding, which is a major source of interpersonal stress for most of the people I work with. Think about what it feels like to have a conversation with someone that you walk away from saying to yourself, “I wonder what she really meant by that” or “I have no idea what the heck he just said. I should have cleared it up before I walked away.” The lack of clarity in both situations seems to hang over your head like a dark cloud until you get it cleared up. When you are unsure of the intent or the meaning of a message conveyed by someone else you usually feel threatened by it and therefore it becomes a stressor. Allowing unclear communications to linger for days, weeks, months, and even years is a sure-fire way to strain your relationships and create chronic stress.
If you do not understand something someone says or are confused by the way they say it, it is your responsibility to bring it to that person’s attention. The other person may or may not even be aware of their miscommunication or the way their words or actions affected you. Even if they are aware of what they said, they may not have said it intentionally. It might have just slipped out and then they realized the impact that it had on you. In either case it is not helpful from a stress management perspective to wait for the person to apologize or to clear it up. It is not the other person’s problem, it is your problem.
Don’t get hung up playing the “should” game. “Well, she should have said it differently,” or “He should have realized that I had no clue what he was saying,” or “She should have known that saying things like that always hurts my feelings.” These are moral/ethical arguments that you can sit around and ruminate about endlessly. In the meantime your stress levels build, and your relationships start to deteriorate. The best time to clear up problems associated with miscommunication is when they first occur.
Taking Responsibility by Using “I” Language
The best way to show the other person that you are taking responsibility to clear up the miscommunication is by using “I” language. When you use I language, you take responsibility for your feelings and any misunderstandings. When you use I language you don’t blame the other person for the miscommunication or for your feelings. For example, let’s say a co-worker just finished explaining to you how to use a feature of a new word processing program you are using at work. When she is finished you really don’t understand how to use it and she starts to turn away to return to her desk. You are a little embarrassed and really confused about how to use this new feature. Rather than blame your co-worker for your misunderstanding by saying, “You really got me confused about how to use the word processing program,” you could say, “I am so embarrassed and really confused about not understanding how to use this new feature.” Rather than blaming your co-worker for your embarrassment and confusion, you own up to your feelings and state them in I language form. When using I language it is important to describe both the situation and your feelings about what happened in clear, simple terms.
The next step in clearing up miscommunication is seeking additional information and clarification. Once you take responsibility for a miscommunication the next logical thing to do is ask the other person for additional help in understanding their message. A simple way to get people to clarify what they just said is to use an open-ended statement or question. Using open-ended statements or questions is the best way to get clarification because they cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. They require the other person to provide additional information beyond a simple yes/no answer.
I’ll use the same example of the new feature of the word processing program to illustrate. To get more information and clarify how to use the program you could use open-ended statements such as; “Tell me more about how to use the program” or “Please go over those instructions one more time, I didn’t understand them completely.”
You can easily turn both of these open-ended statements into open-ended questions by changing a couple of words. For example “Tell me more about how to use the program” becomes a question by making it “What else can you tell me about how to use the program?” or “What else do you know about how to use the program?” Either application is open-ended enough to get the other person to give you the additional information you need.
Exercise: Clearing Up Miscommunication
Purpose: The following exercise entitled, Clearing Up Miscommunication is designed to help you learn how to clear up miscommunication through the use of simple language skills. Learning how to take responsibility for clearing up miscommunication takes time and practice.
- If you are keeping a Stressor Journal look through it for examples of stressors that arose out of miscommunication.
- Think about how you could have taken responsibility for clearing up this miscommunication before it became a stressor.
- Imagine that you are speaking to the person with whom the miscommunication occurred and write out a sentence using I language for accepting responsibility for your misunderstanding.
- Compose two sentences using open-ended responses regarding your need for additional information about the situation. In one of the sentences use an open-ended statement to draw out the information. In the other use an open-ended question to get the information.
- Practice saying these sentences out loud in front of a mirror to hear what they sound like.
- The next time a miscommunication occurs try out your new skills in person. You can even do this over the phone with obnoxious solicitors until you feel comfortable using it with your friends and colleagues.
Until the next time, remember to Stress Less and Live More.